It seemed a formality that once Martin Truex Jr. had fended off a vicious challenge from Jimmie Johnson that Michael Waltrip Racing would score its first Sprint Cup Series win since 2010.
Truex had led 173 laps and seemed on virtual cruise control as the laps ticked away in the STP 400 from Kansas Speedway. He pulled away for chunks of laps at a time after green flag pit stops — 45, 81 and 43 consecutive laps led on successive occasions — separating himself from the runner-up competitor by whole seconds.
Then, with about 35 laps to go, something happened to Truex’s Toyota.
According to team co-owner Michael Waltrip, the sun came out and changed the track, loosening up the car. Truex, however, was unhappy with the last set of tires that he reckoned did not agree with his machine.
Whatever the reason, a charging Denny Hamlin caught Truex and got by shortly after the final round of green flag pit stops to score his second win of the season.
Hamlin’s race-winning pass came on lap 237 of 267, and despite a last-ditch banzai effort with three laps remaining by Truex to reclaim the lead, the aero advantage Hamlin enjoyed carried him to the win.
“I knew that the only advantage that I had is when his (Truex’s) car got so loose that last run, I was able to make up a lot of time on entry and a lot of time on exit (in and out of the corners) because he was really fighting his car,” Hamlin said. “So really, as the driver behind, you can manipulate his car and make it worse for him by getting up close to him — and that’s what I kind of did a few laps leading up to when we passed him, is that I tried to run as close up to him on entry as I could and as close on exit. It takes away rear grip, and to a car that was as loose as what his was, they have no choice really but to back off and not wreck their car.”
The win at the 1.5-mile intermediate oval was somewhat of a surprise, in that Hamlin’s best finish on a comparable track this season was 11th.
“We just need to make 10 race cars just like this one and we’ll be fine,” Hamlin said. “There’s always things, areas that you need to work in. We feel like we’ve identified those areas and we’ve gone to work on them.
“So right now I feel like we’re bringing better race cars to the racetrack than what we have, and it’s still going to take time.
As for Truex, he and crew chief Chad Johnston continue to knock on Victory Lane’s door. Six of his finishes have been eighth or better this season and he has yet to finish outside of the top 20. That performance — he has averaged a 4.8-place finish in the last five races — places him second in the Sprint Cup point standings.
“The NAPA team was phenomenal today,” Truex said. “Just not really sure what to think about that last set of tires. (The) car had been really good all day, (then we) put the last set on and I was wrecking loose for the first 20 laps of that last run and Denny was able to get by me and once he did the race was over.
“(The) car got better longer in the run and I was able to get back to him, but I’d get three, four car lengths from him and pick up the aero push.”
Johnson held on for third after pit strategy forced him to climb out of a late-race hole. Matt Kenseth and points-leader Greg Biffle rounded out the top 5.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro